Thursday, October 06, 2005

throwing down the gauntlet

You know, I am a laid-back person. I don't get too ruffled up about things. Like, when I trip and fall in the street, eliciting gasps from onlookers, I don't make a big deal about it. I pick myself up, dust myself off, try to push my shame deep down, and continue on with life. Yes, I try to take life as it comes.

However. Currently, right now, and for the past few hours, I have had the angry inside. Big time. Like, it's time to rumble.

Okay. So I have this discussion class that is supposed to be us sharing things about our student teaching experiences. So far, this has not happened. Last week, as I said, we discussed the prison-industrial complex. THIS week we started off class with a free word association involving the words liberal, progressive, and radical. (We don't even talk about conservatism in this class. It is definitely off the table. Not that I'm particularly conservative, but I would say there's a kind of intellectual bullying going on here). This exercise took about 45 minutes.

The only amusing part was when a girl associated "radical" with "crazy" and our instructor got pissed. He was like, "now you're just disrespecting someone's belief system." It was ridiculous. He is some kind of Marxist/socialist/radical and really does not try to hide it. Meanwhile, he tells us that we have to be careful not to indoctrinate our kids in any particular ideology when we're teaching social studies. I would say this scores low on the self-awareness scale.

So anyway, throughout this exercise I'm thinking, this is not so relevant to teaching. Usually when something is being taught, I pretend I'm about to get up in front of a class of 30 children, and I ask myself, "is this piece of information or idea going to help me in front of these kids?" If the answer is no, I feel frustrated. I would say I feel frustrated about 95% of the time at school.

I figure that I should probably say something about the angry inside me, so I raise my hand and ask, "why are we doing this exercise? I don't really understand. What does this have to do with teaching?" The instructor responds that he didn't just want to tell us the definitions of these words, because then he would be making the mistake of placing himself as the expert, thus invalidating any ideas that we had. Right.

I explained that what I had meant was, "why are these definitions important right now? How will this make me a better teacher?" Some kids raise their hands to respond. They pretty much say that these conversations are helping them to think about and formulate their political beliefs. First of all, where were they in college? Second, do you care about their political beliefs? Will the kids? I don't, that's for sure.

People seem to think that politics is important in this business. But it's not. Charter schools are supported by all kinds of people: from liberals as pink as the day they were born to conservatives who would wrestle a five dollar bill away from their mothers. If you are committed to a system that works, then you don't need politics because we know what works.

Anyway, my whole "let's get back on track" thing was totally aborted, and we continued to discuss these semantic issues. It seemed like we were wrapping up, and I hoped we could move on to something better. But then, all of a sudden, BOOM. With no warning whatsoever, we have started talking about mercantilism. Oh yes, that's right. Personally, I think a mercantilist system would totally help our ailing schools. I think the colonies that we leech from could be located on the moon.

Ok. So then we read a very inflammatory article about the "pedagogy of poverty." I won't go into it, because it was another one of those "our public schools are trying to control the students' minds. We should let them be free!" Really this is not the issue. Also, the guy says that if you want a highly disciplined school, you may or may not be a bigot. He actually used the word bigot.

We got onto the topic of cultural advantages that middle class kids have, such as listening to their parents discuss different issues, going to museums, having more books, etc. Everyone was decrying the fact that poor kids don't have the same things, and that they come into pre-K already behind. When they continue falling behind, middle school and high school teachers complain that "there just isn't enough time" to teach them, particularly with the mandated curriculum dictated by state exams.

I pointed out that, if what people were saying was correct, then that would mean that urban kids should have more time in the classroom, longer school days, and longer school years. This would allow them to catch up and give their teachers the chance to cover everything they wanted. I provided the KIPP schools as an example of a school system that does this, and gets amazing results. It works. More time in school and good instruction works.

My instructor was not pleased with this, though. He thought the idea was too "militaristic." He said, "I mean, what's the end goal?" I was flabbergasted, once again. Doesn't anyone get it? The goal is to give kids the skills and knowledge they need to choose the kind of lives they want to live. Period, end of story, I no longer want to talk to you, stupid idiot. But he has this whole notion of making people "good citizens" or getting them to "think critically" about the world. Ask yourself, what would you want for your child? Would you want her to get a great academic education and be able to do whatever she wanted, or would you want someone to teach her "how to be a good citizen" or "how to think critically"? I know, me too. And if the chips were down, my instructor would admit the same thing. The fact is that schools like KIPP are vaulting kids OUT OF POVERTY. They're giving them a fighting chance. And the concept of the schools is not that complex. Their motto is: Work hard. Be nice. And everything boils down to that in the end. There's no magic curriculum bullet. It's just hard work. This guy, this instructor, he so decries poverty and "keeping poor kids poor" and "the pedagogy of poverty" but it is HIS reluctance to accept WHAT WORKS FOR KIDS that keeps them where they are.

I really don't understand. And I'm so angry about it.


At October 06, 2005 10:14 PM, Blogger TangoMan said...

but it is HIS reluctance to accept WHAT WORKS FOR KIDS that keeps them where they are.

It also keeps him in a job and allows him to vent off with his Marxist speeches about the system keeping the kids down.

Let me just say that your voice comes through quite clearly in these posts and that makes for compelling reading. You're taking your audience right into these situations that you're describing, and to me, that's quite interesting and valuable.

Keep up the good job. I've already linked to one of your posts and I'm sure I'll do so again in the future.

At October 07, 2005 11:04 AM, Anonymous ns said...

Great post - please keep posting!!!

I read your blog every day - when
there is a new entry.

Please continue to share your thoughts.

At October 07, 2005 2:55 PM, Blogger NMD said...

Oh, I feel your pain. I wrote a response over on my blog, cause it was too long to post in the comments here.

At October 07, 2005 5:24 PM, Blogger newoldschoolteacher said...

Read the nmd's linked post--this stuff is infecting undergrad university courses!

At October 07, 2005 10:07 PM, Anonymous Rag Time said...

What I keep wondering is what is the source for all this round about educational reasoning. When it comes to teaching, things don't need to get too complicated. But contructivism is convoluting basic longstanding principles of pedagogy. Where did it originate? If someone can find the source, they might be able to begin to dismantle it.

Just a thought.

At October 07, 2005 11:21 PM, Blogger Instructivist said...

"But contructivism is convoluting basic longstanding principles of pedagogy. Where did it originate?"

Convoluting is right.

Constructivism creates this pseudo complexity based on verbiage without empirical referents to dissimulate its vapidity. It's an anti-intellectual cult.

The cult followers I dubbed "educationists" cite Piaget and Vygotsky as their progenitors. Piaget did groundbreaking work on how toddlers develop intellectualy and came up with different stages (really a continuum divided into stages to get a better handle on this development). For example, a toddler might recognize at some point that an object that is moved behind another object and disappears from sight does not cease to exist (permanence). Or a toddler might discover on his own that an object falls when released or that bumping into a wall is not a good idea or that a flame is hot. The constructivists' fallacy is to carry this notion of discovery to absurd lenghts and apply it to later years into adolescence. Learning then becomes solely a matter of discovery and experience and of constructing one's own knowledge and meaning. But you cannot "construct" knowledge ex nihilo and keep reinventing the wheel endlessly. You need external input. You need to benefit from the knowledge accumulated over thousands of years. This is where constructivism breaks down. Constructivism presents itself as an epistemology based solely on experience. But personal experience is is limited. Broader learning also needs to tap into an existing body of knowledge that constructivists disparage.

The basic notions of progressive education go back a long way. They are rooted in naturalism and romanticism: The child as delicate flower that must unfold naturally without the corrupting influence of the adult world's civilization, notions promoted by Rousseau's Emile and the ideas of Froebel and Pestalozzi among other.

Of course, these ideas picked up steam with Dewey's ideas and his acolytes primarily at Teachers College.

More on that at some other time.

At October 08, 2005 5:55 AM, Anonymous Rag Time said...

Thanks for the thoughts instructivist. You know, I think a book a lot of people on this blog might find interesting is "THE BLANK SLATE" by Steven Pinker who is a professor of psychology at Harvard. In it he writes about how notions like the blank slate, the noble savage, and Western-Civilization-as-oppressive-and-unfeeling have corrupted our worldview and caused us to wander off on unhelpful philisophical tangents like constructivism.

"An understanding of the mind as a complex system shaped by evolution runs against these philosophies. The alternative has emerged from the work of cognitive scientists such as Susan Carey, Howard Gardner ,and David Geary. Education is neither writing on a blank slate nor allowing the child's nobility to come into flower. Rather, education is a technology that tries to make up for what the human mind is innately bad at.... Because much of the content of education is not cognitively natural, the process of mastering it may not always be easy and pleasant, notwithstanding the mantra that learning is fun. Children may be innately motivated to make friends, acquire status, hone motor skills, and explore the physical world, but they are not necessarily motivated to adapt their cognitive faculties to unnatural tasks like formal mathematics. A family, a peer group, and culture that ascribe high status to school achievement may be needed to give a child the motive to persevere toward effortful feats of learning whose rewards are apparent only over the long term."

At October 08, 2005 9:43 AM, Blogger NMD said...

In my undergrad course, as far as I can tell, the technique came from a bastardization of Paulo Freire. I read _Pedagogy of the Oppressed_. I think it presents some interesting ideas for informal education situations, to empower disempowered adults... in short, as a political tool. Which makes sense, because that's why Freire developed it.

But I was a senior in an well-regarded liberal arts college. I wasn't oppressed. I had critical thinking skills already... and I went to class because I hoped to learn some new material to think critically about. It was more than 2 years ago, and I still am a little bitter that it was such a missed opportunity.

At October 08, 2005 9:52 AM, Anonymous Eric Kendall said...

"I mean, what's the end goal?," your instructor asks. The end goal, for him, is a radical restructuring of the entire socioeconomic and political order along egalitarian socialist lines. From his perspective, any educational policy that does not promote this goal is pointless. From his perspective, actually making our schools effective is worse than pointless if it only serves to reinforce the existing socioeconomic and political order.

I hope this helps. Give 'em hell!

At October 09, 2005 7:24 PM, Blogger KDeRosa said...

But he has this whole notion of making people "good citizens" or getting them to "think critically" about the world.

It's all high-falutin unsubstantiated twaddle.

Ask yourself why all these constructivist-taught students are unable to to use their creativity and critical thinking skills to figure out the correct answers to simple math and reading questions.

Therein lies the answer.

At October 10, 2005 7:53 AM, Anonymous Carol said...

Thanks for your posting. Before I launch into this long-winded monologue, let me point out that I agree with a lot of what you're saying, and I'm glad that there are people like you in education. It gives me hope.

Now. I believe that there is something to incorporating "good citizenship values" into a rigorous academic program. It's easy to take them for granted; perhaps they are so ingrained in us that we don't think of them as values any more. But we do need to teach them, because they are often not being taught. And they're important.

KIPP does it. That's the "Be nice" part of the motto. It's taken very seriously. Teachers are always talking about modeling good behavior in all areas, including "values" that impact academics. A student needs to turn in homework and meet deadlines: that's responsibility and accountability. A student can't talk back to his teacher or make fun of her fellow students: that's respect. And in fact there are consequences for this misbehavior. Just as we don't make excuses for academic achievement for our kids, we also shouldn't make excuses for how they interact with others. (Incidentally, KIPP also has a "Thinking Skills" class, which does involve critical thinking. Personally, I think you can teach both rigorous academic content classes as well as the skills to interpret that content. But that's for another time. :))

Achievement First does it. That's their REACH values, and here's a blurb straight from their website. I can assure you this is not talk, but very much a part of school culture.

Values Education: Many argue that schools should not teach values, but the high-performing urban schools know this doesn't work. The values taught at Amistad Academy, for example, are non-controversial. Who can argue with REACH - respect, enthusiasm, achievement, citizenship, and hard work? Our culture revolves around the twin pillars of being nice and working hard, and teachers and leaders are encouraged to "preach" these values constantly to students. At Achievement First schools, we will teach values and good behavior as explicitly as we teach academics. Achievement First will explicitly teach values like respect, citizenship, and hard work, and the school culture will make it "cool" to do well - and to help others.

Don't get me wrong, these aren't touchy-feely places that fritter away their days on pointless exercises. But they are compassionate schools that want to develop their students to be both good students and good people, and the school cultures reflect that.

At October 10, 2005 8:28 AM, Blogger newoldschoolteacher said...

Carol is right. Having a system of responsibility and good citizenship within the school is great and really can produce some good kids. Both school systems she mentioned do this successfully AND keep academics rigorous, most notably by implementing a longer school day and a longer school year. But if we're talking about an either/or situation, particularly in terms of time, I would pick teaching academics over teaching values. It's just not fair to the child to do it any other way.

At October 10, 2005 9:35 AM, Blogger GrumpyGringo said...

The ed schools emphasize values as part of the new emphasis on 'dispositions' by the NCATE crowd. Of course, the 'values' they 'value' are those that emphasize 'social justice,' 'community' and similar lefty, touchy-feely terms. I doubt the ed school types approve of values such as 'self-reliance', 'discipline,' 'diligence,' etc.... Personally, I really don't want the public schools (as presently organized) to emphasize values. I just want them to teach kids to read, write, and think. Lord knows they've been doing a piss-poor job of that recently.

At October 11, 2005 6:08 PM, Anonymous Catherine Johnson said...

Love your blog--incredible.

I'm curious as to how you decided on Columbia Teachers College, seeing as how radical constructivism pretty much originated there with Dewey, Kilpatrick, & c. "Path dependency" alone would warn me away from The Source.

As well, the NYU ed school seems to be more sober-minded, judging entirely by its course descriptions & the fact that Diane Ravitch has been on the faculty there. (I have no idea what it's like, of course.)

We've been 'blooki-ing' about your blog on a regular basis at Kitchen Table Math. Incredible. Glad you're writing it.

At October 13, 2005 11:04 AM, Blogger Joanne Jacobs said...

Disciplined, structured schools like KIPP do a much, much better job of teaching poor kids to read, write and calculate well and to understand history and science. Their students then have the knowledge, skills and self-discipline to think critically and act as good citizens.

If I wanted to keep poor kids down, I'd put them in chaotic environments and let them be "free" to construct their own meanings. They wouldn't be happpy: Kids like structure and a sense of purpose. They wouldn't be prepared for higher education or a job or anything else. But . . . Well, I don't really understand why anyone who claims to care about the poor would support this.

At October 14, 2005 10:04 AM, Anonymous Susan said...

If you haven't yet done so, I strongly (x3) urge that you read The Graves of Academe, by Richard Mitchell. Then read Less Than Words Can Say. Then read everything else he ever wrote.

All of it (his books, the Underground Grammarian newsletters, his essays) is available for reading online.

Three of Mitchell's books (Graves, The Leaning Tower of Babel, and The Gift of Fire) are in the TC library collection, and Less Than Words Can Say may be available in some other library system to which you have access. All four books are currently available new, in PB, through Amazon, and one can usually find used HB and/or PB copies as well.

At October 18, 2005 6:26 AM, Blogger CatoRenasci said...

As someone else said, this sounds a lot like Paolo Freire's Pedagogy of the Oppressed, an execrable book I read some 30 years ago in my one foray into an education class, which bore no relation to real graduate school (which I did in history and economics) or law school. I'm astounded anyone still reads Freire. It was third rate Marxism and represented a thoroughgoing misreading of Hegel. The education professor teaching the class had to call for reinforcements from the philosophy department when I and another student with a background in philosophy began deconstructing Freire. Unfortunately, the philosopher was not much hel, as she had to admit our readings of Hegel and Marx were more plausible than Freire's, even if she thought Freire was "useful" and "thought provoking".

Hang in there!

At October 23, 2005 12:15 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Thank you for writing this blog. It is sort of like having a window into the sanitarium. Your perceptions are correct: your are being bullied by people who have an agenda that only peripherally relates to education. If you manage to make it through this, send your resume' to Washington Core Knowledge School in Rochester, Mn. It is the polar opposite of what you have been living through. It is no wonder that teachers "burn out" with the situations you are describing. Some day you may even give in to those "conservative" leanings and leave the "dark side" for the light. Good luck.

At October 26, 2005 2:20 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

You have a new fan -- an aging journalist who was steered to your site because he's currently writing something that involves Teachers College. (TC is what we're talking about, right?)Like a lot of your other readers, I am bowled over by the wit and style of your presentations, and based on the Law of Comparative Advantage, believe there is a serious likelihood of your ending up in the writing business, not the teaching business. Meanwhile, congratulations on the current output. Best,

At October 28, 2005 6:43 AM, Blogger Jason said...

Ah... whyfore the anger. I did teacher's college and am now a professor of education. And I *would* be considered a commie by anyone in the US, though I'm an anti-institutionalist so any political stripe that advocates educational institutions as a mechanism for learning are whackjobs in my humble opinion.

My question for you is why do you or did you expect differently than you experienced? Asking a teacher/educator to unpack their taken for granted assumptions about values is like asking an engineer to embrace postmodernism. And I do research with engineering profs, so I know... it is not a pretty sight.

Anyone who is stupid enough to think that their political ideology is being suppressed because someone with power in the classroom is keeping them down with *their* political ideology is not worthy of contempt. They just want to replace their own power system on top of someone else's. Victim becomes oppressor and it continues on.

If you ended up in my class, I'd expect you to unpack your taken for granted assumptions, not unpack mine. I can do that myself... I'd probably model some practice by doing it... but that would just be fun.

While teaching critical thinking and reflective practice this year I told my students that the world is flat because that's all that I've ever experienced, and to think otherwise is to embrace a system of beliefs that have no basis in personal criticial empirical experience. Lots of students wondered what this had to do with education too. I told them that it is their job to figure that out. And it is.

As for your class. I'm assuming you're american, but you could be from western canada, judging by the language (and I'm stopping to write this before I've finished reading, as is my wont). If I was teaching at a US college, I'd probably perform as ultra conservative (teaching is performance) to bring out the socialist in you, just as I use tools of marxist criticism to bring out other assumptions.

Sociology IS inherently socialistic... so why are you upset about that. Complaining that a social studies teacher is a commie is like saying a math teacher's got a numbers fetish. Duh!

Personally I don't agree with either of your points aobut education and classes, but what the hell. Who said I had to. You have points and you discussed them. American education is a joke. Too much time with the institutional administration of schools and learning, and minimal time teaching and learning. Really rather pathetic. So it doesn't matter much where the discussion goes.

There's no question that the american educational research supports your teacher's suppositions regarding poverty and learning opportunities in the US. That is research funded by the american government, not by commie thinktanks with an agenda.

Your position "work harder, not smarter" is typical of someone who was successful in the system and has only a self created fiction of the struggles students are faced with.

You probably shouldn't be teaching social studies. Probaby gym or hard sciences or some other sink or swim field. You'd probably be great at it. My question is, why are you not doing that? Leave social studies to the softies who can't cut it.

Anyway. I'm happy you're angry. It is amazing how angry some of my students get, or end up in tears. Not cause I'm mean, but because I force people to think and engage with their assumptions. If you just get angry and bitter, you're a waste. But if you get angry and thoughtful and reflective, you'll be come a great teacher... that is if you pass on that passion to all students regardless of whether they're godfearing americans or worthless commies.

Saying someone's smart is funny, btw. If you're so smart, why can't you challenge your own belief systems so that you'll realize how they're socially constructed; how everyone else's are socially constructed; and how therefore they're all pretty much the same. Then you'd merely disagree with but understand the commie's point of view. And move on with doing the right thing... saving kids from the evils of the american educational system which bullies kids, wastes their time, teaches them how to compete while setting them up for failure, and produces so many idiots that you have to import upper level brain functions to keep the country going. Not that I'm pointing fingers, I can trash anyone's school system, and we all have 'equal but different faults', but the twin sins of chauvinism and hubris are the most telling and damning.

Good post. Enjoyed reading it.

At March 20, 2006 10:31 AM, Blogger Extreme Wisdom said...

Great post and great blog.

Just FYI, while Jason's post just above is interesting conversation fodder, stick with your original instincts. Your thoughts are far less glib, and probably better thought out.

I don't know how many posting here are also Education Students, but the responses seem to provide hope for those of us who see our society falling under the crushing weight of "The Education Industry." (And yes, that is just what it is. I call it BIG ED)

I don't know if you've seen the articles on how ed schools are trying to identify students like you and screen you out before you get your certificate, but as an unapologetic critic of BIG ED, I invite you to question the entire institutionalized process, and not just the Wobbly (IWW drone)teaching your class.

Your best bet for a teaching career is to hope for a system where the education market is a free as the market in cars or food.

I know that's a tough call for some one in your position. But I can make the case.

Keep up the robust thinking.

At March 20, 2006 6:26 PM, Blogger Darren said...

You have a new biggest fan.

That would be me (I, actually, but me sounds better), if you couldn't tell.

I've written a lot on my own blog about these same topics. Use the search engine at the top of the page and try "social justice" or "equity".

I wish you good luck! I'll be back to read more.


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